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A new crop of storage start-ups has arrived

March 5, 2012 1 comment

About two years ago I was working at EMC and the company had just completed the acquisition of DataDomain, which was one the last “hot” storage-related start-ups around.     There were certainly other storage start-up companies around, but nobody really had a story that screamed “come here, get some shares, and get rich when we get bought”.  A prime example being Xiotech (now Xio).  Xio’s value-prop and future are quite fuzzy from my perspective, but somehow they keep hanging in there.   At the time, everybody wondered who the next hot startup would be, or even if there would be another hot startup.   Compellent was the closest thing one could find, and they were soon snatched up by Dell.

Fortunately for technology, innovation is constant.  New ideas are always being generated, particularly within the realm of data storage.  Anyone who analyzes the balance sheets of EMC, NetApp, and others realizes that data storage is a profitable business, much more so than servers.   I do believe this partly explains why we see so many startups in the data storage arena (because venture capitalists see the $$$), and we also see large conglomerates accustomed to skinny margins like Dell beefing up their storage and services portfolio.

If you follow social media, then you’re already well-aware of Tintri, Whiptail, PureStorage, Violin, Atlantis, Oxygen, Nirvanix, and more.   Today, I’ll give my thoughts on some of the most-discussed startups.

1)      Tintri – my thoughts on Tintri were already published in an earlier post here: https://hoosierstorage.wordpress.com/2011/04/19/tintri-whats-the-big-deal/.   I heard from a handful of Tintri folks after posting that, none too happy with my post.   Some of them are now gone from Tintri.   Ultimately, my thoughts are largely still the same.  It’s my understanding Tintri now has HA controllers, which is a big plus, but I still question the entire market of dedicated VMware storage appliances.    EMC, the parent of VMware, and the largest storage vendor is as focused as I’ve ever seen them in increasing their integration with Microsoft technologies, particularly Hyper-V.    Joe Tucci knows he can’t tie his cart to just one horse, just like he knew he had to let VMware remain independent back in 2006.   Similarly, Veeam has been putting tons of effort into increasing their functionality with Hyper-V.    These companies are both leaders in their respective market segments, think they are doing this in anticipation of receiving no value from it?  Most people buy storage arrays with the intent of using them for at least 5 years.    5 years is a lifetime in the technology world.  There’s no guarantee that VMware will be the dominant hypervisor in 2-3 years.   I certainly hope that they are, and if they continue to out-innovate everyone else they should be.  However, if you buy a dedicated storage appliance for VMware, and in 2 years the world is moving to Hyper-V 4.0, what then?   Microsoft is unlikely to make Hyper-V work with NFS anytime soon.   Would you buy a dedicated storage device for Sharepoint and nothing else?   There still remain use-cases for physical servers and physical servers that need SAN storage.   A dedicated VMware storage box can’t help here.  Why run two storage devices when you can do it all with one?

2)      Whiptail and other dedicated Flash arrays:  Dedicated Flash arrays seems to be generating quite a lot of buzz these days.   They all share a lot of similarities, in most cases the claim is made that by leveraging cheaper consumer-grade MLC flash drives and adding in some fancy magic on top, they can get a much bigger bang for the buck from these drives and make them “enterprise-class”.    They also make crazy claims like “200,000 IOPS”, a number that you simply won’t see in the real world.   Real-world numbers for enterprise-class SLC flash drives are 3500 IOPS per drive.    Anybody who tells you more than that is just blowing smoke.

I know of at least one customer who tested out one of these all-flash appliances.   It was nothing more than a rack-mountable server stuffed with Intel consumer-grade MLC drives (he took a pic and showed me).    He saw a 25% increase in DB performance when compared to the current 50 15K drives that the DB is spread across.   I’m sorry but…..I’m not impressed.    These devices also tend to be single points of failure, unless you buy a second box and connect them together to form a cluster.    I have said it before and I’ll say it again, never buy a SPOF storage solution unless your data is disposable!

As with VMware-dedicated storage appliances, I really have to question the value of the all-flash appliances, except for very niche use cases.   Flash storage for an existing array isn’t that expensive.   The real value in flash is by leveraging small amounts to increase performance where it’s needed, then fulfill capacity requirements by leveraging cheaper high-capacity SATA or NL-SAS drives.   This works and it’s in use today in many environments.  Plus, it’s really not that expensive.   Why buy two devices when you can do it all with one?

3)      Oxygen:  Now we’re getting into some start-ups that I see having good value propositions.   I first became aware of Oxygen about 6-9 months ago, and have been testing the technology out personally.  I also have at least one client that was looking for a secure, Dropbox-like technology for their enterprise that is testing it out.   I posted some previous thoughts on Oxygen here:  https://hoosierstorage.wordpress.com/?s=oxygen

As technologies like Oxygen become more robust, I truly do see this being the next-generation file server within the enterprise.   There is no doubt that we are witnessing a consumerization of IT, with tablets, smartphones, etc.   Users have a need to access their business files on these devices, and if you don’t provide them with the technology to do it, they will find a way using consumer-technologies that you don’t want them to be using.   Oxygen in particular offers a great alternative, providing sync-and share capabilities between your PC and mobile devices, yet retaining the safety and security of keeping data inside the corporate firewall.

4)      Atlantis:  When I first saw the Atlantis ILIO appliance in use, I couldn’t help but be impressed.   Storage performance with VDI is a problem many shops encounter, and when a company can cut that down by 90%, well it definitely turns heads.   Plus, unlike the dedicated physical appliances I mentioned above, Atlantis runs as a vApp, and can leverage your existing SAN environment (or local storage in some cases).   Rather than me do the talking, I would recommend taking a look at this article for a deep-dive on Atlantis: http://myvirtualcloud.net/?p=2604.   I’m currently evaluating Atlantis in my employers demo lab – so far so good.  I’m also working on a model to see just how (or if) it ends up being more cost-effective than a traditional SAN leveraging some SSD’s.

That’s it for now.  Other technologies I hope to be discussing soon include Actifio and Nirvanix.

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Categories: SAN, VMware

Is the end of the File Server finally in sight?

December 28, 2011 Leave a comment

A year ago I wrote an article detailing my thoughts on how greatly exaggerated predictions of the imminent death of the file server truly were. A few years back many thought the file server would be gone by now, replaced by SharePoint or other similar content portals. Today, file servers (herein referenced as NAS) are alive and well, storing more unstructured content than ever before. You can read the original article here: http://bit.ly/t573Ry

In summary, the main reasons why NAS has not disappeared are:

  • Much of the content stored on NAS is simply not suitable for being stored in a database, and middleware technologies that allow the data to stay on NAS but be presented as if it were in the database adds complexity.
  • Legacy environments are often too big to accommodate a migration of all user and department shared files into a new repository in a cost effective manner.
  • Legacy environments often have legacy apps that were hard-coded to use UNC paths or mapped drive letters.
  • Many businesses in various industries have instruments or machinery that write data to a network share to store data using commonly accepted CIFS and NFS protocols.
  • The bulk of file growth today is in larger rich media formats, which are not well-suited for SharePoint.
  • NAS is a great option for VMware using NFS

The other day I found myself in a presentation where the file server is dead claim was made once again, and the very thought crossed my mind as well after seeing some examples of impressive technology hitting the street. What’s driving the new claims? Not just cloud storage (internal or external), but more specifically Cloud storage with CIFS/NFS gateways and sync and share capabilities with mobile devices.

EMC’s Atmos is certainly one technology playing in this space, another other is Nirvanix. I’ve also had some exposure to Oxygen Cloud and am really impressed with their corporate IT friendly DropBox-like offering. So how do these solutions replace NAS? Most would agree that the consumerization of corporate IT is a trend going on in the workplace right now. Many companies are considering “Bring your own device” deployments instead of supplying desktops and laptops to everyone. Many users (such as doctors) are adopting tablet technology on their own to make themselves more productive at work. Additionally, many users are using consumer-oriented websites like DropBox to collaborate at work. The cloud storage solutions augment or replace the file server by providing functionality similar to these public cloud services, but the data resides inside the corporate firewall. Instead of a home drive or department share, a user gets a “space” with a private folder and shared folders. New technologies allow that shared space to be accessed by traditional NFS or CIFS protocols, as a local drive letter, via mobile devices, or via a web-based interface. Users can also generate links that expire within X number of hours or days that allow an external user to access one of their files, without the needing to email a copy of the document or put it out on DropBox, FTP, etc.

The one challenge I see is that no single solution does everything yet, meaning CIFS/NFS, web-based, and mobile sync and share. Atmos can do CIFS/NFS, but mobile device access requires something like Oxygen. Nirvanix also does just CIFS/NFS. Oxygen by itself isn’t really setup to be an internal CIFS/NFS access gateway, it’s primarily intended for web/mobile sync and share use cases. Panzura, Nasuni, etc offer CIFS/NFS or iSCSI gateway access to the cloud, but they don’t offer sync and share to mobile devices. You could certainly cobble together something that does everything by putting appliances in front of gateways that sit in front of a storage platform, but then it starts to become difficult to justify the effort. You’d also have to consider the fact you’ll need to re-architect within 12-18 months when more streamlined solutions are available. Either way, file sharing is still an exciting place to be with lots of change occurring in the industry. I can definitely see the possibility of home drives and department/workgroup shares going away into a private cloud offering, but the concept of file sharing is certainly still alive and well and CIFS/NFS isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. I don’t like to make predictions, but at this point my best guess is the technology that can do the best job of integrating legacy NFS/CIFS not just with “cloud storage”, but with web-friendly access and mobile device access that accelerate the consumerization trends will be the winner in this race.

Categories: Cloud, EMC, NAS, SAN Tags: